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Fake news about Iran's "ambassador" breaking the Ramadan fast
Opposition media showed the "Iranian ambassador" in London breaking the Ramadan fast for a non-Islamic festival. But there is no Iranian ambassador in London.
It was supposedly the perfect picture of Islamist hypocrisy. “While the police in Iran attacked people with tear gas on the ancient Spring Picnic Day for eating during Ramadan, a video emerged showing the Iranian ambassador and employees in London picnicking and eating on the same day,” the London-based news station Iran International tweeted out. A retweet of the video by British-Iranian comedian Omid Djalili received thousands of likes and over 171,200 views.
The only problem? There is no Iranian ambassador in Britain. The video shows pious-looking Persian-speaking Muslims breaking the fast in a park, but there’s no indication that the picnickers work for the Iranian government. The camerawoman shouted “you are the ambassador” at two men who look nothing like any recent Iranian ambassador to Britain.
Someone like Djalili could be forgiven for sharing viral outrage-bait, but Iran International is a news outlet. Ideally, a reporter from the station would have tried to find and talk to the people involved in the video. Even thirty seconds of Google would have been enough to fact-check this story. Failing to do so is a disservice to the community that Iran International serves, and potentially libelous to the picnickers.
The video got so much traction because people were expecting a controversy over Ramadan and the Iranian spring holidays. When events inside Iran turned out to be tamer than expected, diaspora blowups like the picnic video got more attention than normal. And the trope of Iranian officials acting like flagrant hypocrites abroad is based in real-life incidents.
Sunday was Sizdah Be-Dar, or “Thirteen-Out-the-Door,” the end of the twelve-day New Years’ vacation. (The Iranian calendar follows the zodiac; the first of Aries is New Years’ Day.) It’s traditionally a picnic day. However, for the first time in 33 years, Thirteen-Out-the-Door fell during the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan, when believers fast from dawn to dusk.
A lot of people seemed to be expecting — and frankly, so was I — a big confrontation between picnickers and Iranian authorities or religious vigilantes. Police warned that they would enforce public fasting laws harshly, and cities across the country closed their parks until near sunset. Plus, the weather is finally warm in Iran again, which could revive last year’s protests after a cold and polluted winter.
For the most part, the big confrontation didn’t come. There was one incident of police aggressively trying to break up a crowd in Masuleh, including by flashing guns and deploying smoke or gas. In another incident, the crowd chased away police in Bandar Anzali. (Both are popular resort towns.) In the rest of the country, the holiday appeared to pass peacefully.
Plenty of videos did show mixed-gender crowds frolicking around together, the kind of thing the Islamic Republic would like to stamp out. But morality police have been driven off the streets, thanks to the immense sacrifices of protesters during the 2022 uprising. Public defiance of the hijab law no longer makes headlines, except when someone gets arrested or the government threatens to start cracking down again.
Ramadan fasting is also not politicized like the hijab. The Iranian revolution of 1979 imposed dress codes that don’t exist in most Muslim countries. On the other hand, Muslim-majority societies have long had social (and legal) expectations that people respect the fast in public. And it isn’t the first time in history (or since 1979) that Ramadan has overlapped with a civil holiday. Iranian society has experience navigating these issues.
The nature of the holiday probably reduced the chances of a confrontation. Thirteen-Out-the-Door picnics are supposed to happen in the countryside — far away from police and pious busybodies in the cities. In fact, leaving the city can justify breaking the fast on religious grounds; most Shi’a scholars consider fasting invalid while on a journey, and traveling around 20 kilometers outside city limits before noon is enough to trigger that condition.
Which brings us back to the London picnic video.
One of the picnickers said that she and her companions are not fasting because they are mosaferat, “on a journey.” That could have been why the camera woman believed them to be embassy staff, either because she mistook the word for sefarat (embassy) or because she assumed pious Iranian Muslims traveling through Britain must be there on official business.
The video pretty quickly devolved into a shouting match, with the camerawoman blaming the picnickers for depriving “my people” of their freedom to celebrate holidays. Before losing his temper, one of the picnicking men tried to explain, “I’m not giving permission? I’m not in Iran. I’m here.”
There is a deeper resentment at play. Iranian oligarchs are known to live decadent lives abroad even as they support theocracy at home. The camerawoman may have seen the picnickers in that light, as people who support the Islamic Republic but benefit from the freedom to bend the rules that a liberal democracy affords.
However, the picnic did not fit that mold at all. The oligarchs tend to aggressively, openly, and flagrantly flout the rules:
The picnickers, by all appearances, were pious middle-class normies. The women were wearing hijab voluntarily, and made sure to have a religious justification for eating, even as they were breaking up their Ramadan observance for a non-Islamic holiday. In a society where Muslims don’t always see a contradiction between Islam and other parts of their culture, the picnickers are the sort of people the Iranian government claims to represent and is frequently at odds with.
The whole incident shows how polarized Iran is in the eyes of diaspora media. Fortunately, that doesn’t reflect Iranian reality.
I will not be sharing the picnic video, out of respect for the privacy of the family, and to avoid spreading disinformation.
Correction: I originally translated ایران نیستم as “I am not Iran,” but a commenter pointed out that it actually means “I am not in Iran” in colloquial Persian.
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